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The Corridors of DNA

Rosalind Franklin and DNA

by Anne Sayre
Norton, 221 pp., $8.95

As a story, the discovery of the structure of DNA has just about everything. To begin with, it is one of the great discoveries in the history of science. At least one scientist of high distinction has described it as the very greatest. That depends on whether one’s view is centered on life in our corner of the cosmos. To take the most understated view, the discovery is certainly the conclusive half of Darwinism. We now know how, from the primordial soup to ourselves, hereditary information has been transmitted, without which life could not have emerged. This second half of Darwinism is intellectually more final than the first, and will have more effect on how human beings think of their condition and themselves. In scientific terms, it is beautifully simple, almost ludicrously so. As one devout unbeliever cried out: “Why has God such a remarkable predilection for rather dull nucleic acids?”

Second, in the years before 1953, a fair number of people realized that the discovery would soon be made. It was “on,” as they said. In that sense, there really was a race. This is quite common in scientific history. Even in completely abstract fields, such as non-Euclidean geometry and special relativity, persons totally unconnected with one another have thought about the same things at the same time. No one understands why. In the case of the great experimental discoveries, such as the electron or DNA, the reasons are more apparent. Among the scientists involved in the race over the electron there was a good deal of concealed rancor of the kind Anne Sayre reveals in this able and high-minded book.

In the case of such competitions—there have been plenty, major and minor—scientific opinion has tended to give the credit to those who realize most clearly just what they were doing. Crick and Watson realized exactly what they were doing. From the informal judgments by scientists that a spectator can pick up, there is pretty wide agreement that there is no injustice in the fame they achieved and even less about Crick’s particular genius. There is also pretty wide agreement that injustice has been done to Rosalind Franklin. Anne Sayre’s book is essentially an attempt to rectify that.

Third, there were psychologically tangled relations between the two major competing teams, Crick and Watson in Cambridge, Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin in King’s College, London (all of them young in 1951, Crick and Wilkins thirty-six, Rosalind Franklin thirty, Watson twenty-three), and also within the teams themselves and with their nominal bosses. One of the oddest complications was that W. L. Bragg, one of the most generous-minded of men and normally an admirable judge of talent, couldn’t see the virtue in Crick, another generous-minded man, as expansive as the young Rutherford. It was here that Watson’s passionate will played a major part. It would have taken more than a deprecating chief to stop Watson and Crick, though two less strong characters probably would have been stopped.

The tangles and conflicts among the scientists would have made a novelist’s fingers itch. In fact, they did make a novelist’s fingers itch, in the person of James Watson. Among his other gifts, he turned out to be a natural writer. The Double Helix is the only account of a great scientific discovery written from the inside and exposing the naked facts. It will survive for a very long time. It is, as it could hardly help being, in detail unfair—though, Watson’s detractors might remember, not so unfair as memoirs of war leaders, such as Churchill’s. It is unfair to Crick, who is a much deeper and more complex character than Watson suggests. It is also unfair to predecessors, such as Bragg and J. D. Bernal, without whom none of this work could have happened. Most sharply of all, it is unfair to Rosalind Franklin.

It is that last unfairness that Anne Sayre is dealing with, and from her book most detached readers will get the history more nearly right. At the cost, of course, of perpetrating some more unfairness, especially to Watson himself. But Watson can cope with that. Rosalind Franklin is dead, and she didn’t have a square deal.

What I am going to say now will likely interpose myself in a fight, with the certainty of getting assaulted from both, or all, sides. Never mind. It won’t be the first time.

I didn’t know Rosalind Franklin. She is the only important character in the whole story whom I never met. Some of the others I have known well, some slightly. Bragg and Bernal were close friends in my youth, and continued to be after I gave up scientific work. It is a disadvantage not to have known the main character, of course. Curiously enough, I did know, very well, the milieu of well-to-do and public-spirited Jewish families from which she came. As an impoverished young gentile, I received much kindness from similar (and related) families.

Rosalind Franklin was—the evidence is plain—a good scientist, an excellent experimenter, unwilling to make leaps ahead of the facts. For the greatest achievements that can be a handicap, as in this story. In the major break-throughs, scientists have usually guessed much of the answer before they start. Crick and Watson had certainly guessed a good part of the answer about DNA. Rosalind Franklin hadn’t and would have thought worse of herself if she had.

She was the kind of scientist who never believed that she was sufficiently well trained. Actually she had had as thorough a scientific education as Crick or Wilkins, and a much more thorough one than Watson’s. She thought she had not done enough crystallography, though she was the only crystallographer among the four. Slightly later, before her early death, she took some of the most beautiful X-ray photographs ever known.

She went to King’s early in 1951, two years before the entire DNA episode was completed. It was intended that she and Wilkins would work together on DNA, Rosalind Franklin doing the crystallography, Wilkins, slightly senior, all the rest. Within a few months, she had produced and analyzed X-ray photographs that were to provide a major slice of the experimental data needed to solve the structure of DNA. But she didn’t recognize what she had. Anne Sayre does some special pleading here. A scientist of greater daring or intuition would have leaped at the implications of this evidence. If Rosalind Franklin had had anyone to help, so might she have done. One trouble was that within a few days of her joining the King’s department, she and Wilkins, her senior colleague, were barely on speaking terms.

That was, to put it mildly, a pity. Wilkins is a high-principled, sensitive, liberal-minded man. She was a sensitive, vulnerable woman, who was inclined to feel ill-treated just for being a woman; those who knew her intimately (and Anne Sayre knew her well and loved her) found her affectionate, gentle, and kind.

Her kind of vulnerability, however, showed itself in an aggressive manner. Her assistant, who admired her, described her as having a

very sharp debating style of discussion…. If you believed what you were saying, you had to argue strongly with Rosalind if she thought you were wrong, whereas Maurice would simply shut up. He wouldn’t really go out on a limb and justify himself…. Rosalind always wanted to justify herself….

Wilkins was not a man to be comfortable with female aggression, and withdrew. In scientific discussion, she had a passion for what wartime scientists used to call “harsh argument.” Some scientists are devoted to harsh argument as a method of reaching the truth, but they are very rarely the best. As a rule, the best like to go away by themselves and brood. Wilkins was a brooder, not an arguer. The two of them couldn’t have been worse matched.

During that year, 1951, while her photographic work was going well and her personal relations were going abominably, James Watson kept dropping into King’s. There was no secret that he was in search of information. He and Crick knew what the problem of DNA meant, in every conceivable sense. They were in a hurry. More than any other scientists, anywhere in the world, they were determined that nothing should stand between them and the answer. They were building models in Cambridge of what the DNA structure might be. This is a hit-and-miss method, but the quickest method if there is enough data to back the model up.

Watson meanwhile got on friendly terms with Wilkins. There was much less secretiveness on Wilkins’s side than in a good many other scientific rivalries—and his willingness to help Watson, notwithstanding the criticisms and suspicions that emerged later on, is one of the pleasantest things in the story. Watson did not get on well with Rosalind Franklin. Their minds and personalities were even more opposed than hers and Wilkins’s. Hence the caricature of her in Watson’s book. It ought to be remembered that Watson at the time was a very young man. The story might have been a sweeter one if Crick, extremely easy with women, had conducted the visits to King’s.

Part of Anne Sayre’s case is that Rosalind Franklin was a victim of antifeminism. There is something in that, but not so much as she thinks, or so directly. If Rosalind Franklin had been a man, with any sort of equivalent mental make-up, her relations with the others wouldn’t have been radically different. Alternatively, if Bernal had been in charge, she would have been soothed and looked after—not for ideological reasons, as Anne Sayre suggests, but because he regarded women as rather more than merely fellow members of the human race. A good many women scientists, some who attained the highest distinction, such as Dorothy Hodgkin, worked happily in Bernal’s laboratories throughout his career.

Relations got worse. Rosalind Franklin continued, after being distracted by a major diversion, to get nearer the answer than she knew. The fact that she didn’t know is borne out, though not emphasized in this book, by her decision to leave King’s. Not even the most retiring scientist (and she had her proper share of ambition) would have considered taking herself away when she knew she was within touching distance of a great discovery, even if her colleague was trying to poison her. Similarly, in the middle of 1952 she took a month off to make a tour of inspection in Yugoslavia. Anyone who has seen a scientist certain that he is on to a great thing—as with Chadwick working twenty hours a day to identify the neutron—will know how much that behavior reveals.

In February 1953, after some toing and froing of a rather complicated kind, Wilkins, without Rosalind Franklin’s knowing about it, showed Watson her X-ray photograph. Watson realized at once that the answer to the structure of DNA was staring him in the face. So, of course, did Crick the instant he was told. They sat down and wrote one of the supreme papers in the history of science. It is written with complete understanding and authority, and with dazzling prevision of what the discovery meant.

There will be arguments for a long time about the way this clinching evidence reached them. Ought Wilkins to have given it to them? There is no cut and dried code of behavior in these matters. I have intruded myself more into this review than would be normally justifiable, but much of the story depends on subjective judgments. My own view, an outsider’s and worth very little, is that Wilkins behaved in the highest spirit of scientific candor, very much as Darwin and Wallace behaved to each other, and that Watson and Crick were justified in doing what they did, simply because they saw what no one else saw and what they had been looking for with deeper insight than anyone else in the game. I also feel that it would have been better if they had made fuller and more handsome acknowledgment of what they owed to the evidence from King’s.

Rosalind Franklin died of cancer in 1958, at the age of thirty-seven. In 1961 a Nobel Prize was divided between Crick, Watson, and Wilkins. If she had lived, no one knows whether she would have been recognized too. Nobel Prizes for science are not everything, but they mean a lot to scientists, and, within the limits of human fallibility, are as fair as awards can be.

To finish, I am going to call upon two more subjective judgments, from people incomparably more competent to make them than I am. The first is from Sir Peter Medawar, a Nobel Prize winner himself and one of the least gushing of critical minds. He has said that Crick is one of the few scientists who could have earned the prize for two distinct discoveries—if not for the structure of DNA, then for his work on the genetic code.

The second is from Bernal, with whom Rosalind Franklin was working in the last years of her life. Bernal was himself dying a slow death when he talked to me on this topic, but his intelligence was still acute. He said that Rosalind Franklin was a very good scientist, not a great one (a similar view to Crick’s). She would probably have got into the Royal Society if she had lived. Crick and Watson, he said, deserved all the honor they had received. Each had contributed about half the DNA discovery. No other pair would have tied it up so quickly and so finally. Rosalind Franklin would have got the answer herself not so long after them. Her own data would have made that inevitable.

Very emphatically, Bernal said that he would have been shocked if she hadn’t been given her share of a Nobel Prize. Even when mortally ill, Bernal took pleasure in the human comedy. He suggested that if Rosalind had survived, there ought to have been two prizes, in order to keep apart the people who detested each other—thus Crick and Rosalind dividing one, Watson and Wilkins the other.

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